Let's not beat about the bush. I have no idea how to square off bedclothes so as to satisfy an NCO's bunk inspection (I can barely straighten my duvet). I have not owned footwear that requires polish in the current millennium, nor a belt that requires blanco ever. I couldn't complete a route march with a taxi, dig a foxhole without a JCB, or perform drill any better than I can dance the tarantella.
Rehearsals at the mirror confirm that I am quite incapable of saluting anyone, or anything, without sniggering, which I'm told is strongly discouraged. I dislike bully beef, bugles, flags, impoliteness, silly walks and loud noises. I would want a deckchair to do sentry duty, I possess the navigational skills of a tumbleweed, and I have no desire to shoot anyone (though I do occasionally harbour dreams of throttling the woman upstairs with the yappy little dog)...
Why do I mention this? Pre-emption, that's why. It might seem perverse to write about anything other than pensions reform while France burns, riots rage and the gendarmerie exercises its traditional taste for excess. But President Macron looks no more willing to cave in than he did a month ago. It is a state of armed deadlock, and with the numbers on the streets finally starting to subside, Macron is determined to move on.
Last week, he went on TV in combative mood to say so, and this week formally announced his first major post-pensions initiative, a national strategy to conserve water. Others will follow, and word is that they could well include some variant on the theme of national service. Hence my urgent plea to (as Samuel Goldwyn used to say) include me out.
Truth be told, I doubt very much that it would be to my demographic of portly Private Godfreys that the President would be looking in the first instance to defend the Fifth Republic. As far as one can tell, the plans will be aimed at the young, starting somewhere around 15 (there are different potential criteria flying around) and the emphasis will be less on whizz-bangs and jaggy trousers than on social responsibility and dutiful citizenship.
All the same, it is surely a remarkable, and unlikely, proposition for a centrist liberal leader to entertain, especially one so committed to the motif of modernisation. As has been written here before, the very worst policy ideas always begin 'Bring back…'. It is barely 25 years since Jacques Chirac decided to phase out (over four years) the compulsory military service that had been required of young Frenchmen ever since the Revolution. In reality, it has never quite gone away.
Young men (and more recently, young women) remain obliged to register for vaguely defined obligatory service in the event that need (also vaguely defined) should ever arise. Chirac instituted, in 1998, the Journée Défense et Citoyenneté (Day of Defence and Citizenship) which all French nationals must undertake. Previously called Defence Preparation Day (Journée de Préparation à la Défense), it is a one-day civil defence and citizenship crammer course, which earns a certificate that is a precondition for recruitment into the civil service and other public sector jobs.
In 2019, Emmanuel Macron grafted on to this mandatory one-day course a voluntary four weeks away from home for the young, the Service National Universal, or SNU. Though its military aspects are played down in favour of time spent learning civic theory, road safety, first aid and the like, the SNU does not lack martial overtones. Participants sleep in dorms a long way from home. They are separated from their mobile phones, surgically one supposes, and required to parade in Mao-jacketed uniforms with peaked caps that make them look, to judge from a recent newspaper photograph, like a North Korean goon squad. There is a lot of anthem singing, flag-saluting and stamping about. Half the course is spent on attachment to the cops, fire brigade or armed forces.
Macron has continued to insist that he is not planning to turn the voluntary SNU into compulsory national service. Yet that looks increasingly to be the direction of travel: it may, for example, end up as de facto compulsory, a precondition for university entrance or passing a driving test. The President talks of recasting civic values and duty, as part of his shopping list of second-term legacy projects: not just the pensions upheaval, but also a 'freedom' or 'right' (the alternative words are the crux of the debate) to abortion to be entrenched in the French constitution; a new crackdown on the €7bn black economy ('au noir'); another round of always-provocative regional boundary rationalisations; even a possible return to seven-year presidential terms from the present five years.
It is in keeping with this programme that the quaintly-named Sarah El Haȋry, Minister for Youth, is reportedly working up the details (and funding) to implement a proposal from the lecturers' union to trial mandatory SNU in a shorter format, for pupils aged 15 and up, in at least six départments.
To my generation of Brits, this is all scarcely credible. We grew up with teachers and parents who had borne arms either in the Second World War or in its deferential aftermath, and who took every opportunity to explain how a spot of enforced square-bashing would do long-haired layabouts like ourselves the world of good. The only possible response was not to believe a word of it, then or ever. I would make many sacrifices for my adopted country, but this remains my position.
The French, though, seem to have a residual faith in the benefits of compulsory martial subjugation. France was the first European country to bring in universal conscription as a condition of citizenship and one of the last to abolish it. A poll last month for the Journal du Dimanche
found that 75% of French adults were in favour of obligatory SNU, 41% utterly and 34% mostly. Support was solid across the genders (at 77% of men, 74% of women) and generations (astonishingly, 68% of 18-24 year olds supported compulsion).
Yet the momentum is not quite all one way. Some, though fewer than one might suppose, say the whole thing is simply wrong in principle. The unions for school and college students, who have shown themselves formidable agitators in the pensions strife, argue that national service is about herding the young together to obey orders ('increase the cohesion of the state' is the official formulation). Others, including some prominent academics, see the concept as anachronistic in an age of technocratic soldiering.
There are also grounds to think that compulsion is only on the agenda because the voluntary response has been disappointing. Only 32,000 teenagers took up the voluntary SNU option last year, a third of them the children of parents who already wear uniforms. Compulsion, if applied nationally, would boost numbers beyond 800,000. How this could be afforded is unclear. In countries that have had national service, the strongest opposition traditionally comes from the regular military, who reckon there are better uses for their professional skills and scant resources than showing resentful adolescents which way round to hold a gun.
The French enthusiasm for bringing back national service remains baffling to me, frankly. All the same, I do draw comfort from the knowledge that, at least for the foreseeable future, this particular 'orrible little man will not be expected to fall in… or, more likely, over.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster